Darth Vader might have the most iconic head since Mickey Mouse. That helmet, with its sharp, angular features and cold black (sometimes red) eyes, is not only synonymous with Star Wars but cinematic villainy in general. A Darth Vader costume without the helmet wouldn’t be half as memorable as the asthmatic king we stan today, and yet that’s exactly what George Lucas originally had in mind!
The Visionary Artist That Saved Darth Vader
One of the biggest arguments in the Star Wars fandom is who was responsible for what. How much did George create vs. how much did others help him achieve his vision? One name that doesn’t get mentioned in these arguments nearly as much as it should is Ralph McQuarrie.
Ralph McQuarrie And George Lucas
McQuarrie was an artist Lucas hired to visually represent the ideas floating around in his head. McQuarrie’s concept art gave us the initial design for the X-Wing, R2-D2, and C-3PO, and most importantly, Darth Vader and his iconic costume. But that doesn’t mean that everything flowed from Ralph’s pen fully formed.
Darth Vader Wore Silk
George Lucas‘s original vision for Vader was something out of Lawrence of Arabia. “ With the desert setting so prominent, I think George at first envisioned him as a Bedouin-like character,” Ralph McQuarrie once said of Darth Vader. According to McQuarrie, Lucas suggested that Darth Vader could have a costume with “a silk robe that always fluttered as he came in,” a “face covered with black silk,” and “some kind of big helmet like a Japanese warrior.”
Inspired By Samurai Films
In other words, Lucas envisioned Vader wearing a kabuto, a type of helmet worn by samurai in feudal Japan. This is unsurprising, considering that Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films were one of the biggest influences on A New Hope. While Vader would have still looked cool dressed in silk robes and a samurai helmet, it was a pedantic detail that accidentally gave us the coolest mask in cinema history.
Darth Vader’s First Appearance Shaped His Look
Ralph McQuarrie took the scene where the dark lord of the Sith boards Leia’s ship at the beginning of A New Hope as Vader spacewalking between his Star Destroyer and the Rebel Blockade Runner. “I reminded George that the first time we see Vader, he’s boarding one spaceship from another,” recalled McQuarrie, “and I asked, ‘How’s he going to breathe out there in space?'” That question resulted in an illustration where the artist updated the Darth Vader costume to include a breathing mask with “a downward-curving snout and big goggles.”
George Lucas Fell In Love With The Mask
The original idea was for Vader to wear his breathing mask for the first scene and then take it off for the rest of the movie. That plan fell by the wayside when George Lucas saw McQuarrie’s picture. McQuarrie mused years later that perhaps Lucas decided that making the mask a permanent part of the Darth Vader costume would be “fascinating,” like something out of “an old Greek tragedy.”
Darth Vader’s Origin
Maybe that was George’s thinking, or maybe he just thought McQuarrie’s design looked rad as hell. Either way, the helmet/mask became integral to Darth Vader’s costume and backstory. Once the decision was made to have Vader breathing through the mask all the time, Lucas had to come up with a reason for it. This led to the idea that Anakin Skywalker was so scarred and physically weak under his armor that he needed the mask to stay alive.
A Sci-Fi Icon
Darth Vader and his iconic costume prove that being an uber-nerd and asking something like, “Umm, actually, how is this guy going to breathe in space?” can lead to great things sometimes.